It is hard to imagine how the Coalition government could have dug itself so deep into the mire over the proposed forest sell-off. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Caroline Spelman. She will, no doubt, be made to carry the can but I am sure many hands helped craft the disaster which is now plainly in the making for the government.
The most egregious error, it seems to me, was the insouciance, one might almost say, the arrogance, with which the proposals were made. Though the former Labour Government undoubtedly sold off forests, the acreage involved was a small fraction of what is now proposed. The Coalition, par contre, intends to put up a first tranche of forests for sale covering no less than 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) or some 15% of the forest estate in England. (The authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have shown no enthusiasm for such measures). Ministers would have put up more if they could.
Jim Paice, MP, the lead Defra minister, told a House of Lords Committee last November:
“We wish to proceed with… very substantial disposal of the public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.”
But there was a snag. Mr Paice was quite open about the problem:
“In order to have substantial disposal, we need to change the law. Our lawyers advise us that up to about 15% of the forest could be sold without risk of transgression of current legislation, which requires the Commission to own and manage the public estate. To get beyond that, we would need to change the law. That is the reason for it."
“We need to change the law”! If a change in the law was needed so as to permit the disposal of the remainder of England’s public forest estate one might have supposed, naively, that a measure to that effect might have featured in the election manifestos of the Coalition parties or in the Coalition programme agreed shortly thereafter. Not a bit of it.
Some bright spark decided that the ‘way forward’ involved trying to by-pass Parliament altogether. For my money one of the root causes of the current fiasco lies in the extraordinary attempt to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny and approval by including three so-called Forestry Clauses in the Public Bodies Bill now being considered by the House of Lords.
Consider the following exchange which took place at a recent session of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, and Defra civil servants were questioned about the powers they were seeking by including forestry matters in the Public Bodies Bill:
The Chair of the Committee stated: “That’s a once and for all legislative permit, that you will never again as a Department have to come back for future sales of forestry or such?”
Defra civil servant: “That is the intention.”
Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: “The Public Bodies Bill is an enabling Bill on the reform of a wide range of arm’s-length bodies.”
Chair: “So you will never, ever again have to come and ask permission?”
Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: “We should not have to, no.”
Chair: “So this is our one and only chance?”
Defra civil servant: “Yes.”
I served for five years as a Conservative Member of the European Parliament during which time I was Vice-Chairman of the Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection. I can truthfully say that one of the things we most hated was having to consider proposals from the European Commission which contained clauses similar to those now being proposed for forestry in the Public Bodies Bill.
In Brussels they were called ‘technical adaptation measures’, and they gave power to the Commission to amend European Law without recourse to the EU Parliament or EU Council. That is precisely what is being proposed here in the Public Bodies Bill for forestry. The net result, if this bill goes through, will mean that parliamentary approval of the sale of the rest of the forest estate (beyond the 40,000 hectares now being put up for sale) will no longer be necessary. On the contrary, for ever after, such disposals may be authorised simply on the say-so of the Secretary of State for the Environment.
What a way, one might say, for the UK to celebrate 2011, proclaimed by the United Nations as the International Year of the Forests!
The irony of all this is super-obvious. Anyone who listened yesterday to the House of Commons debate on Labour’s motion calling for the Government to rethink its sale of England’s public forest estate would have come away impressed and indeed enthralled by the knowledge and the passion with which so many MPs on all sides of the House spoke. No doubt some of them were inspired by the hundreds of even thousands of letters and emails which they had received from their constituents.
But to suggest, as some government ministers seemed to suggest, that they were simply responding to a wave of synthetic indignation whipped-up by interested parties is, I submit, a travesty of the reality. Judging by the quality of the speeches I listened to yesterday, the floor of the House of Commons is precisely the place for questions of such pith and moment as the future of the nation’s forests to be debated. And decided!
Defra has now embarked on a so-called forestry consultation. Frankly, it is hard to take this seriously at a time when the Forestry Clauses of the Public Bodies Bill are still being progressed through Parliament. The procedure, indeed, seems all the more laughable since the one option which, from the evidence of all available polls, 80% of the public appear to want - viz. the option of not selling off the public forest estate - seems to be deliberately excluded.
How is the Coalition to dig itself out of this hole before it is too late? I have three proposals. The government should:
Cancel the proposed sale of the first tranche of the forest estate (viz the 40,000 hectares);
Withdraw the Forestry Clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, thus reserving to Parliament itself the right to take decisions about the disposal of vital national assets; and
Either terminate for the time being Defra’s forestry consultation exercise or rewrite the document so as to permit full consideration of status quo or non-disposal options.
The advantages of such an approach would be many. If it is indeed true, as currently seems to be the case, that selling off the forests will cost money rather than save money, then not selling the forests should be economically advantageous. As it is, managing the forest estate today only costs the equivalent of 30p per head per year.
There are also other important but not easily quantifiable non-economic benefits, e.g. the services relating to water catchment, soil erosion, access and recreation etc which the non-sale of the forest estate might safeguard. And as many speakers in the House of Commons debate made clear, there are national (not just English) advantages in maintaining the expertise of bodies like the Forestry Commission if these multiple services and benefits are to be ensured.
Much has been made of the so-called ‘conflict of interest’ in having an institution like the Forestry Commission which is both a trader and a regulator. The Prime Minister himself mentioned this issue at PMQs yesterday. But it is worth noting that in the past this problem was satisfactorily handled through Forest Enterprise agencies, operating at arms-length within the ambit of the Forestry Commission. There seems to be no reason why a similar solution should not be adopted today if the ‘conflict of interest’ issue is a real rather than concocted problem.
It is also conceivable that Britain’s international reputation would be enhanced if, as we invite countries like Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia to protect their forests (and spend taxpayers’ money to help them do so), we take similar steps to protect our own.
From a purely parochial view, adopting the three measures outlined above might allow Mrs Spelman a measure of respite from the incessantly mounting public clamour which must make her life a misery. It would allow her and her Department the chance to concentrate on other more important matters. The future prospects of the Coalition will also, I suspect, be considerably improved.
Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist and author who is a former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate. He is also a founding supporter of Save England's Forests.
This article was originally published on ConservativeHome.